can you ask about mental health in job interviews?

A reader writes:

I’ve just been put in charge of hiring a group of staff for a summer camp. I began managing this group of staff last May (and was thus not involved in the hiring process) and discovered that a couple staff members had some mental health issues that interfered with their job responsibilities. Two of the most extreme examples involved one worker with an eating disorder and cutting; another had PTSD. This really impacted their ability to be good counselors — the first as a role model to impressionable junior highers; the second was afraid of the dark and would have serious flashbacks, making overnight camp-outs impossible.

Now that I’m playing a more significant role in hiring, I’d like to know what I can do in the interview process to find out about these sorts of things. While both of these workers underwent extensive reference checks, this isn’t the kind of thing that regular employers would find out about. Is it prudent for me to ask direct questions about a potential counselor’s current mental health? I want to hire emotionally stable people, but I’m worried about being discriminatory.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 263 comments… read them below }

  1. Ty*

    Person with PTSD and depression here.

    I guess what worries me about the specific situation here is that I can’t parse whether or not these mental health issues are ones that the employees are definitely having trouble with right at that time (particularly with the person with an eating disorder/cutting), or if the writer is making the assumption that because they have these things, they will have a problem, and calling that possibility ‘interference with job duties.’ The wording makes me think it goes either way.

    Just because an employee has PTSD or has an eating disorder (those never really go away) doesn’t mean they can’t do the job being asked of them, if the condition is controlled and treated. I can see a scenario where the person admits they have had an issue in the past either in open conversation or specifically to make an employer aware of the circumstance as a safety measure in case something should happen, and it being interpreted as a present issue that will cause problems. I’ve seen this happen because of the mental health stigma far too often.

    All the same I like AAM’s advice with regards to interviewing or even a conditional/probationary hiring period, but it’s a really fine line.

    1. Jesmlet*

      My interpretation was that these were people from the last batch who demonstrated issues in these areas and OP just wants to avoid this happening in the future. The tough thing is there’s no easy way to tell if someone will be able to perform the duties of their job without actually watching them do it. Even if you asked directly (which would be illegal), they could still say ‘I can manage just fine’ and find out later that they can’t.

      Better to make them aware of what the delicate aspects of the job are and let them decide if they can actually deal. Like, ‘In the past we’ve had sensitive topics come up such as ___, and ___. Are you comfortable managing these and what would you do?’

    2. Alton*

      I think people also need to be cautious about what constitutes a “bad influence.” Obviously it’s not a good thing for kids to hear their camp counselor purging in the bathroom, or walk in on them self-harming. But I don’t think that, say, having old self-harm scars that show when wearing shorts would make someone a bad influence for kids. This should be based on how the counselor’s behavior impacts the campers or affects their ability to do the job, not how having a mental illness makes them look.

      1. Hlyssande*

        As a kid, having a role model who had struggled similarly would have made a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE for me in the most positive of ways.

        1. Venus Supreme*

          I agree with all of this. To be the “light at the end of the tunnel” (for lack of a better phrase) for the younger folks.

        2. JM in England*

          This! Imho, only someone who has been through themselves what you’re being counselled for can fully understand it…………

        3. anon for this one*

          (lincensed therapist & person with her own mental health issues here) This is one of the reasons peer support specialists are such a huge trend right now. Studies have shown that they have a positive effect on treatment and recovery, by providing both social support and modeling appropriate coping behavior. I think OP would be doing a real disservice to their campers by screening people out simply because of their diagnosis. Alternatively, no one should be hired if they can’t safely and effectively perform the job, regardless of any condition(s) they have.

      2. Blurgle*

        And not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s also common for people to interpret *any* scarring on a young woman as self-harm scarring. Discriminating against the mentally ill is bad enough; discriminating against accident survivors and people who give themselves injections regularly is a risk as well.

        1. Emma*

          Yeah, my friend has two prominent scars on her wrists/lower arms from where she accidentally put both hands through a glass door (she was trying to open the door and pushed, not realizing it was locked), and it seems that most people, or at least most of those who mention the scars to her, assume she was self-harming, and many don’t believe her when she tells them about the accident.

          It’s the latter part that gets me. I mean, on the one hand, one really shouldn’t be assuming they know where any scars come from – but disbelieving someone even when they tell you the story is something else. Sure, some people lie, but if it’s a believable story and you have no way of knowing what the truth is, at least pretend to believe them.

      3. JellyCat*

        This is something I’ve struggled with in the past, I’m 28 now and a therapist, when I was 12-17 I self-harmed very frequently. My left arm is covered in scars. I’m very pale and they’re white so most of the year they’re barely visible, the only time they become noticeable is in summer when the skin around the scarring tans, leaving the white scars to stand out a lot more. I don’t think 9/10 people would notice (they’re not in a uniform pattern and they’re not raised, you can clearly see them if you’re looking at them but not many people are gazing closely at my arm).

        I don’t believe my managers are aware of the scarring or my past self-harm as it’s irrelevant to how I am emotionally today, but I made the decision to continue wearing whatever I want, and if somebody ever noticed or commented I can choose how I respond to that. In personal circles I’ll openly say it’s from self-harm, however I have a ‘cover story’ for when I don’t want to disclose (i.e. put my arm through a window).

        Unless you’ve been through self-harm, it’s quite difficult to really understand how simply seeing someone else’s self harm scars or cuts is never enough for a previously completely emotionally healthy person to decide to pick up a razor and cut themselves. Personally I hope that if a client ever does notice the scarring, they find some kind of solace in seeing that just because someone has done that to cope before, that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to a life of being judged for it, having it noticed, being barred from certain jobs, etc.

        I just saw the OP’s update that the person self-harming was still showing up with fresh wounds and telling people they planned to self-harm. IMO, as someone who has been there and works with people who are there, that is not somebody I’d feel comfortable putting in a position of trust and responsibility over impressionable young kids until they had ceased the behaviour and found other, healthy ways to cope. It’s one thing to see previous scars on somebody, quite another to know your counsellor is trying to support you in coping with emotional distress, then going home and release their frustrations via cutting.

    3. cbackson*

      Gently, I’d like to push back on the concept that eating disorders never go away. With treatment, eating disorders are curable. The struggle can be lengthy, but it is possible for a person with an eating disorder to recover completely. ANRED and others have detailed stats, but the general figure you tend to see is that roughly 60% of patients will recover.

      EDs are horrible, horrible illnesses, and the recovery rates are far lower than they should be, but the idea that you can never recover puts many people into a hopeless place, and it’s not true. In fact, a camp counselor who is recovered from ED has a unique opportunity to help campers who are struggling with EDs themselves. But to your point, there is enormous stigma associated with mental health, and many people will not distinguish between a past illness and a present one.

      I speak from personal experience, as a person who is fully recovered (13 years and going strong!) from severe anorexia (and as a former camp counselor, FWIW, although because of stigma, I was afraid to speak out about what I had experienced).

      1. Ty*

        Thanks for those thoughts, I don’t have an ED myself and so was going by the perspective of those I’ve met that do or did. Most said they continually struggle with it so I’m glad that’s not true for everyone :)

    4. OP*

      OP here – how fun to see my question from years ago being revisited! I’m still an avid AAM reader, so I thought I’d jump in with some additional details.

      In this situation, the mental health issues were current, ongoing issues. The staff member who struggled with an eating disorder and self harm was actively engaging in these behaviors in full view of the camp – noticeably eating tiny portions at meals with her campers and making unwholesome comments about food; showing up with new self-harm wounds; even telling people that she planned to cut herself if xyz didn’t happen.

      There’s definitely a huge difference between that situation and a counselor who has struggled with an eating disorder, self harm, or other issues and they are controlled / treated. Counselors like that are excellent role models to young women! I wish I could hire more of them!

      1. Relly*

        Thank you so much for clarifying this! I completely misunderstood what you meant by a bad role model, which is probably more about my own fear of mental health stigma than anything you said.

      2. Trout 'Waver*

        Thanks for clarifying and the follow-up. I incorrectly thought you might be perpetuating the stigmatization of mental illness and I’m glad to see that you’re not. Sorry for my misunderstanding.

      3. Venus Supreme*

        Thanks for the clarification, OP! Since you said it was a question from years ago being revisited, I’m curious how you handled the situation in the following summers with any new employees?

        Also, I hope that the girl has gotten help. It sounds like her ED and cutting was highly noticeable. I wish she had/still has someone to talk to.

    5. Sarashina*

      Agreed. Person with PTSD here, and even the worst of my symptoms never really effected my work. (I even got an Employee of the Year prize after that year, so I guess I was doing pretty okay performance-wise!)

      And like Donna refers to at the post, my own experiences give me some background when dealing with difficulties here. I’d say that now that I’m doing a lot better, it even helps me de-escalate situations with panicked students.

  2. Overcaffeinatedqueer*

    Ugh this. Lawyers can be and are asked about their mental health as part of being licensed, though fortunately my state narrowly tailors the questions after an ADA suit. And government employers of lawyers and student attorney interns also can and do ask their own questions.

    So, for one internship with a federal office, I had to provide affidavits from multiple counsellors saying my judgment and reliability was good. But, I only sought help because I was having problems around coming out and how others reacted!

    So, I had this choice of not disclosing, and letting the employer think it was something way worse, or coming out and making the mental health question less awful but also risking bigotry.

    I wish there were a way to raise that these lawyer questions have a disparate impact on LGBT lawyers.

      1. Overcaffeinatedandqueer*

        I’ve thought of bringing that concern to the state board, but also worried that doing so might open an investigation into my own health- because on the state bar application, the narrow tailoring of the mental health question allowed me to say that it would not be a problem for me professionally, in good faith.

        1. Anon for this*

          I am a lawyer and my former fiancé, another lawyer, was mentally and physically abusive towards me. I did seek counseling, but it bothers me that I need to disclose my counseling / mental health impacts when I get licensed in another jurisdiction. It’s grossly unfair. You have my sympathies.

          1. Overcaffeinatedandqueer*

            My jurisdiction only asks “have you had mental health issues that interfere with work, in the past 2 years?” basically. So I could say, truthfully, no. I had one, maybe, but it didn’t interfere.

  3. Cat Steals Keyboard*

    I work in an area related to mental health, albeit in the UK, and I don’t think your advice about using STAR questions is appropriate. Would you advise using those to suss out someone’s sexuality? Or to determine whether they have kids? Exactly.

    The right thing to do is a) ask potential employees if they need any adjustments, b) ask new hires to complete an occupational health questionnaire and c) put support and adjustments in place as needed. Saying you want to hire emotionally stable people shows a fundamental lack of understanding: you can have a mental health issue but also take good care of your mental wellbeing and employers should support you to do that. If someone isn’t fit to work that’s for occupational health to determine. Alison, the STAR questions you suggest are just inappropriate. As a big fan of AAM and a recent letter writer who received great advice I’m incredibly surprised and dismayed by the line you’ve taken here. You shouldn’t be encouraging people to use STAR questions to enquire about a protected characteristic. Please consider rewriting this column.

    1. Jesmlet*

      As someone who used to work in the mental health field, I 100% disagree. The STAR questions aren’t meant to suss out their mental health conditions, but are rather meant to suss out their ability to perform the expected duties of the job. This applies regardless of the existence of a mental health issue. Furthermore, the interviewer wouldn’t know if the person has a mental health condition so they would have to ask everybody. Not discriminatory at all. If you can’t be in the dark and an essential responsibility of your job is working overnight outside, it is completely understandable to use that as a mark against the applicant and there’s no reason to go to great lengths to accommodate them unless they disclose the disability in the first place.

      1. Cat Steals Keyboard*

        But they’re being recommended to someone who wants information about mental health, which means they’d be asking with an inappropriate agenda.

        1. Jesmlet*

          From how I read it, it doesn’t seem like OP would care as long as it doesn’t affect their ability to do their job. I think the issue is we need to clear up what does and doesn’t affect their ability. If OP does have a prejudice against hiring anyone with a mental health diagnosis then it’s an entirely different problem. I don’t think you can assume that’s the case without clear evidence.

          1. Katniss*

            I don’t know. The way I read it, the OP had problems with a handful of people with mental illnesses, and is now stating they want to avoid hiring more people with mental illnesses because they want someone “stable”. Sounds prejudicial to me.

            1. Jesmlet*

              I agree that the mental stability comment sounds pretty ignorant but maybe after reading the comments OP will see that.

            2. fposte*

              I think you’d find it informative to go back and read the original post, where the OP expands on the situation in the comments.

              She’s not stating she doesn’t want to hire anybody with a mental illness ever, and she’s explicitly fine with people whose cutting or EDs are under control. She’s saying they’ve had some trouble with young volunteers (these aren’t actually paid workers) who’ve found the rigors of camp to be too much for them, and she’d like to find a way for her sake and the kids to get more information about who’s going to struggle in this situation.

              For most camps they’d be doing the same thing about people’s physical abilities, too; I don’t see this as being terribly different.

                1. fposte*

                  The link isn’t to the original post–it’s a reprint, as Alison says in her intro here. This is a question from 2013. You can find the original posts in those reprints by searching key terms (in this case “summer camp” gets you the 2013 post as the first hit).

                  I’ll post the URL in a followup, too, as requested.

                2. Kyrielle*

                  Thanks, fposte. I do wish the link to the original were always present on the copy here, because so often there’s more information in the comments there. Sometimes it pops up in You May Also Like, but it seems like that happens less and less lately.

              1. Anna*

                The OP also commented above this thread about the question being asked because her examples were people who did not have their illnesses under control and were actively cutting, etc., which is not a good look for camp counselors. The OP is trying to create a safe environment for the children in her care, which has to take precedence in this particular case.

    2. Cordelia Naismith*

      Really? I’m a little surprised by this. I thought the questions suggested in the column put the focus where it should be — on how the candidate would behave in the job, not on whether or not the candidate has a disability. Although, admittedly, I don’t have much experience in this area. Can you explain a little further about why you think questions like “how would you counsel a camper with an eating disorder” or “what would you say to a camper who was afraid of the dark” are inappropriate?

      1. Cat Steals Keyboard*

        Asking those questions is okay. Asking them with the aim of sussing out the applicant’s own mental health is not. And given we know OP has that agenda, I really think this was the wrong advice.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But that’s not the aim at all! The aim is to determine if candidates are able to perform the job well, totally aside from any mental health issue they may or may not have. I think you misread the advice.

          1. blackcat*

            Alison, for what it’s worth, I found the advice great & compassionate, with the focus squarely on the requirements of the job rather than the illness.

            1. Myrin*

              I agree, blackcat! Also, I actually feel like the mental illness thing is a complete red herring here and only comes up in the first place either because OP is more or less strongly biased against mentally ill people or because she feels like she has to tread especially carefully when dealing with someone who has a mental illness and puts them in a separate category from all the others who couldn’t do their job well. But really, she could have asked the core of her question – which Alison as well as Donna answered beautifully, imo – without mentioning mental health at all and just say that in the past, she’s had problems with counselors turning out to not be capable of performing basic functions of their jobs (or something similar) and now she’d like to really figure out what kind of questions she should ask during interviews.

          2. Vin Packer*

            The framing leaves that aim unclear, though–it sounds like “here’s how to get around those laws, and hey, bonus, it’s also good to do in general” instead of “good hiring tailored to what you specifically need will make this a non-issue.”

            Another commenter pointed out the opener of “this is tricky, let me get a lawyer” setting the tone a bit–it’s actually not tricky, and you probably didn’t need a lawyer, just a different mindset. The actual content of your advice is good and implies this toward the end, and the lawyer’s too, but the OP’s problematic wording and the early framing makes the motives seem a little shady on the first skim.

            1. Kore*

              Yeah, saying “you can ask questions to see how a candidate would perform in a particular job” is fine advice, but answering “Can I ask an applicant about their mental health?” with “You can’t ask about their mental health BUT you can ask them questions to suss out their job performance” makes it less clear.

              1. JaneB*

                The emphasis on mental health/emotional stability as the debarring condition in the original letter was I think a bit awkward – Alison answes the letter as if the question was about ensuring people hired were able to do the job, but the letter framed it specifically as wanting to filter OUT certain people.

                There are for example vision and balance conditions which might make someone a liability after dark (heck, if I lose a contact lens I literally walk into doors, my uncorrected spatial perception is that bad – I’d be in the middle of the fire-pit or knocking myself out on a tree, no trouble!), all manner of ways in which upbringing/beliefs can make someone a problematic role model for younger children (whether that’s, say, preaching abstinence only or talking constantlyu about the attractiveness of potential partners and asking children who they ‘fancy’ among the other campers (how I hated that question!), obsessing about having perfect nails and hair, repeating their family adages without being aware of the effect they might have on others…) – the questions suggested seemed like a great way to identify people who could do the job, which is surely the goal, NOT to weed out those with specific problems, but the framing of the question makes it easy to read the whole thing as about the latter, not the fomer.

                1. Okeee*

                  >> The emphasis on mental health/emotional stability as the debarring condition in the original letter was I think a bit awkward – Alison answes the letter as if the question was about ensuring people hired were able to do the job, but the letter framed it specifically as wanting to filter OUT certain people.

                  THIS, exactly.

            2. halpful*

              I’ll second that “good content, bad framing”. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the advice until I read OP’s reassuring comment above.

              It’s nice, though, that even alison’s “bad” advice is still pretty good. ;)

    3. Jaguar*

      I was writing up a response similar to this, but abandoned it. To me, this article reads as “you’re not allowed to inquire about an applicant’s mental health – here’s how to get that information indirectly.”

      In general, people with mental health issues aren’t harmful to kids. In many cases, such as depression which often results in a higher level of empathy, they can even be significant advantages to positions of trust or leadership.

      1. Temperance*

        I disagree. The advice here is to determine whether the person is fit for this particular job, and whether they have any issues that might lead them not to be fit.

        So using your note about depression …. these questions wouldn’t find out that the person is depressed.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s not what the questions are designed to suss out. They’re about figuring out if a candidate can do the job, so that worries about mental health issues become irrelevant.

      3. Observer*

        I’m finding this reaction utterly weird. The questions are hyper focused on very specific tasks. They would, in fact, do a TERRIBLE job of figuring out someone’s mental health status.

        Unless the applicant actually says something like “My PTSD makes this a problem”, it would be almost impossible to figure out that someone has PTSD (or any other mental health issue) based on someone’s response. Even if the person blanches at the question, stammers and stutters, and makes it clear that they just CANNOT deal with overnight camping trips in the dark, you would never know that it’s mental health issue. Of course, that’s fine – what the OP needs to know is if they handle being in the dark, and if they can handle overnight camp outs, not the reason why.

        1. Jaguar*

          To me, the letter reads like this:

          LW: “I don’t want to hire any more people with mental illness. Can I ask about it?”
          Answer: “You can’t ask about it, but here’s a loophole.”

          Specifically, Allison’s language, “The law doesn’t allow you to inquire into someone’s medical health, but…” reads to me like “here’s how to get the information anyway” and not “you should be focused on suitability for the job instead of health issues.”

          The fact that the loophole does a terrible job of figuring out if people have mental health issues doesn’t excuse it, in my opinion, but makes it worse. You’re now getting people guessing at whether people have mental health issues and using that as information towards their candidacy.

          I agree that asking the questions recommended is useful and advisable. My issue is that this is presented as a loophole to address the letter writer’s concern (finding out people’s mental health status) instead of a redirection to candidate’s suitability for the jobs. The only language about people with mental health problems not automatically being unfit as role models is an added note by the consulted lawyer and otherwise unaddressed, which I think is burying what should be the lead.

        2. Gustopher (formerly Murphy)*

          Exactly. These questions would do an excellent job of eliminating say, my stepdad from these positions because he couldn’t start a fire in the dark, or my mother-in-law because she spends a lot of time talking about weight and being weird and restrictive about food and body image around kids. Neither of them have a mental health issue, but they’d be not good at this job.

    4. Alton*

      I disagree that STAR questions in this instance would be used in a discriminatory way. In fact, I think focusing on the job duties helps reduce the risk of focusing on whether or not the applicant has a disability, which isn’t really the employer’s business unless the person asks for an accommodation.

      It’s also good for the applicants to get an idea of what the job entails and what situations are likely to come up.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yep — in fact, that’s exactly what the law advises doing when you have concerns, but I’m advising doing it for everyone, since it leads to better hiring and will make the question of mental health stuff irrelevant.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think you misread the advice. I’m not suggesting “tell me about a time when…” questions about about mental health! I’m suggesting asking them about the areas of the work that the person needs to be able to do, which all interviewers should do for all jobs, and I specifically note that asking them of everyone will help make better hires across the board.

      1. Elliot*

        Before reading the comments, I felt like the advice was doing the same thing. I don’t feel it was clear enough that the advice was designed to weed out potentially unstable employees, and it felt like it was an attempt to create a loophole to allow the manager to be discriminatory.

        “This is a tricky one…”

        No, it isn’t. You aren’t allowed to discriminate against employees with health conditions. Period. If OP had said, “I had an employee who missed a lot of work because she had cancer, how can I be sure that I don’t hire anymore employees with cancer?” the advice would have carried a much different tone.

        Because the reality is, that Jane could be an eating disordered schizophrenic with PTSD and be capable of doing her job because her conditions are controlled, Jim could have no mental illnesses but have Crohn’s disease and require urgent bathroom trips that make overnight camping trips difficult, and Jessica could have no health condition yet set a poor example for kids because she interviews well but is a total jerk. The advice was centered on the OP’s desire to pick out the Janes (and possibly Jim) from the other candidates, when clearly she should be more focused on weeding out the Jessicas (and in this situation, maybe Jim. Sorry, Jim).

        We should strive to accommodate the health conditions of excellent employees when possible, whether psychological or physical. For instance, with the examples OP gave, she didn’t really specify why they were such terrible employees other than their mental illnesses. If X with PTSD was a good employee, could the camping issue be alleviated by providing a light source reliable enough to leave on all night in her tent? How exactly was Y with an eating disorder setting a bad example? I have an under eating disorder and my clients and coworkers don’t even know about it (probably because I’m a man and people don’t micro-analyze my eating habits the way they do women, honestly), yet there is another employee who is extremely underweight and doesn’t eat at work because she has a severe physical illness, and people are constantly talking about her “eating disorder” behind her back. And I’ve worked with many binge eaters with health problems from being severely overweight and nobody seems to think this is bad for children to be around, at all. From OP’s question, there’s not even enough information to even discern whether or not the mental illnesses were the actual cause of the employees’ problems, and that was not addressed at all in this advice.

        1. Temperance*

          I vehemently disagree with this comment. It’s very clear from the letter that there were 2 counselors whose symptoms presented while working with the kids. That’s a serious issue, and could have safety implications for the kids.

          In your example, Jim, Jessica, and Jane are all unfit to work as camp counselors.

          1. Relly*

            Why is Jane unfit? Elliot specified that her conditions are controlled, and that she can perform her duties as needed.

            1. Anna*

              In the specific case of the OP, they were NOT under control. The counselor with ED and cutting would make disparaging comments about food and would eat very little. She would also come to work with clear evidence of her ongoing cutting behavior and openly discussed cutting herself. Not good when working with kids. You don’t really have an argument when it comes to this specific letter.

              1. Relly*

                Just to clarify, I made that comment well before the OP weighed in on the specifics. I absolutely agree that the behavior you mention is inappropriate! No argument there.

                In this particular comment, I was referring to Elliot’s hypothetical, an employee whose conditions were “controlled” — which to my mind, would mean that Jane is not engaging in destructive, harmful behavior around her young charges, and that her mental health issues are being handled by her in appropriate, safe ways. I was trying to determine if Temperance was meaning to say that a person in that situation was still unfit, and if so, why she felt that way.

          2. Jesmlet*

            If Jane presents no symptoms and requires no accommodations, then there’s no way to know she has any mental illnesses and therefore no way to exclude her.

            With that said, my last job was working with people with mental illnesses and assisting them with employment. 50% had schizophrenia and I wouldn’t want any of them caring for my kid. It’s hard separating potential outcomes from reality.

          3. Elliot*

            How would Jane be unfit in my example of having a controlled health issue that has no effect on her job?

            Am I unfit for my position working with mental health patients because of my severe dissociative disorder, or the resulting eating disorder that came of it, despite being in my position for over a year without any of my clients or even my supervisor knowing about it?

            I actually moved my healthcare to another city because of the fear of anyone finding out I have stopped eating for days at a time, go through periods where I engage in self harm just to feel anything at all, and spend months without feeling like I know who I am, and not being able to get a job as a result of it, despite being reliable and successful in my current position.

          4. Katniss*

            “Jane could be an eating disordered schizophrenic with PTSD and be capable of doing her job because her conditions are controlled”

            How is Jane unfit?

                1. Jesmlet*

                  Probably because stigma? Just guessing.

                  The interpretation usually is that no matter how stabilized someone with schizophrenia currently is, they’re still more likely to have issues come up than random person without it. Whether that interpretation is factually correct is uncertain but I wouldn’t necessarily hate on someone who would rather have their child cared for by someone without schizophrenia over someone with. Just own the fact that you’re making assumptions about people.

                2. Chinook*

                  Katniss, without knowing specifics of how she functions while showing symptoms, you could be unfit without realizing it. Does her eating disorder cause her to be to weak to deal with an emergency that requires physical fitness (like CPR)? Does she model healthy eating habits or does she say/do something that influences the children under her care to eat less than they should? If she is delusional, is she reacting to these delusions in a way that is causing fear in those she is caring for or distracts her from noticing real dangers? Does her PTSD cause her to react to ordinary circumstances in a way that endangers those under her care?

                  You are right that having these issues doesn’t mean she is not qualified and capable. But, if they are not under control, than this will impact her ability to do the job. When it comes to the care of minors, the standard is higher because the volunteer in charge is responsible for their safety.

                  I speak as someone who has started having hallucinations in the last few months (just cartoon bunnies ready to jump out from cartoon rocks to yell “oggabooga,” so it could be worse and I am getting treatment) and I know that I am still able to keep those around me safe because I am not delusional. But, if I ever started to believe that those bunnies are real and are going to trip me, I probably shouldn’t be in charge of children and it would be up to those around me to recognize that the bunnies aren’t real and keep me from being in charge.

        2. Beck*

          Wrong. You should never prioritize accommodating a worker’s mental issues OVER the safety and well-being of the children they’re responsible for. I’m sorry, but that’s being politically correct to a fault. When Jane the schizophrenic with PTSD is on an overnight camp out and an emergency happens that triggers her issues and renders her unable to assist her coworkers or ensure the safety of the children in her care, that is a liability you cannot afford as an employer. You can bet your ass the parents of the children under Jane’s care aren’t going to care at all about whether Jane’s issues were “accommodated”; they’re going to demand to know why she was put in a position of authority at all.

          It’s harsh, but you can’t blindly say that “Yes, every individual can take part in child care regardless of whatever serious mental issue they have!” I worked for 10 years in camp counseling, and we drilled CPR/First Aid/emergency response plans into our counselors heads for a reason. Being a camp counselor does not just consist of playing games and having fun all day; you are RESPONSIBLE for kids’ lives and if god forbid a potentially dangerous situation should arise then you need to be calm, in control, and be able to keep your wits about you. Accommodation should never, ever take priority over safety. Jane can find a job that accommodates her without putting lives at risk.

          1. Elliot*

            The focus in this example was on the workers’ mental stability, not mental illness. You can have a mental illness and be mentally stable. You can also have no history of mental illness yet be very unstable. I had a babysitter once who had no previous mental illness and was absolutely perfect for months, then left my kid with a stranger and quit midday because of her first bout with pregnancy psychosis. Does that mean I should never leave my son with anyone pregnant? Absolutely not, our current daycare provider is pregnant. Same goes for having a bad experience with a mentally ill employee. Mental illness in itself does not disqualify someone from being alone with children. I have a fairly severe mental illness, and one associated with some pretty scary symptoms, some of which are pretty similar to schizophrenia. I’m a single custodial father with a position that requires a high level of responsibility for the wellbeing of vulnerable people even including driving alone with clients regularly 70-80 miles from my workplace. That’s been the way it has been for a very long time, nobody is in danger, and neither my son nor my clients or even my coworkers know I suffer with this disorder. The focus should be on hiring employees capable of doing a job, not secretly screening for mental illnesses.

          1. Turanga Leela*

            I think a lot of people wanted to hear you say explicitly, “Mental illness isn’t a reason not to hire someone, and you shouldn’t be trying to suss out people’s mental illnesses.” You addressed that employers can’t legally ask about it, but you didn’t get into whether it was morally okay.

            I didn’t have any problem with your response, but I was sort of waiting to hear that and was surprised when it didn’t come up.

            1. Chinook*

              I agree. I thought your response was spot on because the symptoms of these mental illnesses are what the OP really is looking for, not the illness itself. The questions you recommended focused on asking about legitimate skills and abilities. that are required to do the job. Sometimes mental and physical disabilities will get in the way (i.e. a blind person will probably be able to fashion consultant or direct traffic). It sucks, yes, but a requirement is a requirement for a reason.

            2. Jadelyn*

              Yes – thank you for putting into words, that’s what I was missing and kind of kept waiting to see. Especially given that Allison is usually great about picking out those unspoken undertones of -isms in people’s letters and addressing those directly (one of my favorite things about this blog is it doesn’t let sexist or whatever else -ist assumptions stay unspoken and thus unchallenged!), it came off weird that this time, that unspoken or half-spoken bias was never addressed in the usual “here’s how to fix your actual issue – but also, don’t do that other thing because it’s not okay” way.

      2. Kyrielle*

        Yep, a couple of your questions would probably cause me to fumble and be pulled from possible volunteers if I were hypothetically applying. Not because of any mental illness on my part, but because I’d be uncomfortable trying to guide someone else’s child through anything thornier than “careful, don’t step in the poison oak”, and would probably be at best a terribly mediocre counselor as a result.

    6. Nerdy Canuck*

      I could be mistaken, but I don’t think you CAN ask about the need for accommodations in the interview, because that’s asking about disability status in effect.

  4. Katniss*

    Not sure if the OP will see this, but I would ask you to reconsider your conflation of those particular counselors with people with mental illnesses in general and your definitions of “mental stability” surrounding that. Mental illness is very unfairly stigmatized. I would urge you to read up on myths about mental illness and to not assume that just because a person has one, their illness will impact their job in any way:

    I have several mental illnesses, and I don’t think anyone I’ve ever worked with would say it ever impacted my job in a negative way.

    1. Murphy*


      Obviously, it’s a concern if someone can’t complete their job duties (i.e. overnight camps with a fear of the dark) but having an illness does not automatically make someone unfit

    2. Temperance*

      I’m not sure I’m following. These counselors were unable to properly do their jobs due to their mental illnesses. Are you suggesting that LW separate that fact from reality?

      I do not disagree that there is a lot of stigma around mental illness, but it’s occasionally warranted – like when you are a camp counselor responsible for children and you can’t properly do your job in a safe way.

      1. Katniss*

        I am suggesting the LW separate those specific people from people with mental illnesses in general. If she had three men in a row who did bad jobs because they were men, we wouldn’t say it was okay for her to be wary about hiring men in general or to think that men weren’t fit to be hired.

      2. Kyrielle*

        I think the suggestion is to not assume that *everyone* mentally ill, or even everyone with specific conditions, will be unable to do the job, but rather judge them on their actions and ability to do the job. Which is what Alison seemed to be trying to get at.

        If Fergus has PTSD and can’t handle overnight camping trips as a result, the problem is that he can’t handle overnight camping trips and that needed to be done. I mean, if he can’t handle the overnight camping trips because of Crohn’s, the need for a CPAP (assuming he hasn’t got, and doesn’t plan to get, a battery-operated version), or just because he really doesn’t want to go and thinks they’re annoying, it’s still a problem.

        It isn’t the PTSD. (And someone else with PTSD – say, who can’t handle explosion-like sounds – would probably be a perfectly fine hire and not a problem at all. Unless you have dubious propane tanks at camp, in which case, replace the propane tanks anyway….)

        The emphasis should be on “can this person do the job properly and in a safe way?” and not on why, and it does sound like the OP may have been assuming mental illness (or even some specific mental illness) is a barrier to that in general. Rather, it’s the presentation and behaviors that are an issue.

        1. Elliot*

          ^^ This. Nobody is suggesting to hire someone incapable of doing their job, but what the LW asked was how to avoid hiring mentally ill counselors, not how to hire the right fit for the position. Unfortunately, the response to this letter did not address that the mental illnesses were not the problem; hiring people who were a poor fit for the position was.

      3. Sheepshank*

        You’re not following because you’re conflating “two specific instances involving two people with mental illnesses that had very specific camping-hindering symptoms” with “all mentally ill people everywhere.”

        And really, I don’t believe for a second that you don’t understand. I believe you are pretending not to understand. I believe this because you’ve posted the same thing several times regardless of how many people have explained it to you.

    3. FD*

      I agree. When you talk about mental illness in terms of being ‘unstable’, it’s honestly kind of hurtful to people who live with mental illness (and who may even be pretty successful with it).

      Here’s an analogy. Someone might have diabetes, but it’s well controlled with insulin and lifestyle. They do have to make some adaptations for it–they have to monitor their blood sugar, be careful to eat regularly, and take occasional shots. However, as long as they do that, they’re perfectly able to drive, hold down a regular job, etc.

      On the other hand, someone else might have diabetes that isn’t controlled well (for whatever reason). As a result, they’re prone to loosing consciousness unexpectedly, or having other major symptoms. This might be a problem for driving or holding down some jobs.

      In this analogy, the diabetes itself isn’t the issue–it’s the symptoms that are the problem.

      1. Jadelyn*

        That was what got me – that final “I don’t want to hire unstable people” part. I have severe depression and anxiety, but because my meds work well at controlling my symptoms, everyone at my current job (which I got after I started receiving treatment) who I’ve confided that to has been shocked because “you don’t seem like that at all!” So this conflating of a couple of people who, it sounds like, had not been receiving effective treatment (and/or had been put into positions that were a bad fit with their continuing symptoms) with all mentally ill people as “unstable” is seriously Not Okay.

  5. leslie knope*

    i kind of resent the notion that having mental health issues like EDs and cutting makes you a “bad role model” for “impressionable” kids, like eating disorders are contagious and superficial and not serious diseases. please consider your words carefully when talking about people with mental health issues. (as someone who has those issues herself)

      1. leslie knope*

        to me that kind of phrasing would be used for someone who was vandalizing property or doing illegal/immoral things, which is a false equivalency because it’s not a choice, it’s a medical condition.

      2. Katym*

        As am I, because I overcame them and it made me stronger. However its possible at the height of my ED I would have been a bad influence without knowing. Even now I’m terrified that my underlying issues will impact my kid. The individuals involved have to be aware of how their mental health is impacting them and others. Not sure there is a way to ask that before hiring, but if someone is in a place where they are a problem due to their actions a manager should try to step in.

        1. Temperance*

          Kind of OT, speaking as the child of a very mentally ill parent: it sounds like you’re in a good place and you’re working on your health. Your kid will not be negatively impacted just because of your past illnesses or your controlled illness now. Best of luck on your continued recovery.

        2. Elliot*

          At my lowest weight, I felt like I needed to cover up my body all the time in fear of being “a bad influence on others” as if it was something someone could catch from me. I felt guilty if I felt good about the way I looked for a day, and everyone in my life made it a point to tell me how terrible I looked consistently, every day. I echo the sentiment that an eating disorder is not a choice, recovery is (as is making positive changes to minimize the effects of any other health condition, like limiting sugar with diabetes), having one speaks nothing about a person’s character, and it’s obviously not contagious.

          Now if the counselor was talking about his or her eating disorder with clients, that is another issue in itself. As would be talking about any other illness, NOT having the illness itself.

        3. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          This. I have adult friends who had to step back from me when I relapsed in my mid-20s because my ED was influencing their food/weight attitude.

          I can’t imagine what it would be like if I worked around children.

    1. Temperance*

      I think this is worded VERY poorly, but I can see where the LW is coming from. Exposure to certain mental illness symptoms can be distressing or even traumatic for children (or adults, let’s be realistic).

      I will say that there is a huge difference between someone actively engaging in self-harm, and a child witnessing that, vs. someone having self-harm scars and being open about it, which i think helps address stigma and might encourage a kid to seek help.

      1. Katym*

        I agree with this entirely. The impact can be bad if the individual handles it badly, but open discussion is usually a good thing

      2. leslie knope*

        yeah, i understand that and i definitely see how it could be traumatic for kids who don’t really understand it. it’s just unfortunate wording given the stigma that already surrounds mental illness.

        1. Temperance*

          FWIW, I grew up with a mentally ill parent, and even knowing that she was “sick”, it was and is still pretty traumatizing for all of us to deal with her.

          I really do agree with you on the unfortunate wording front.

      3. blackcat*

        Yeah, I interpreted the letter as the cutting was an ongoing problem. A camp counselor who is actively self-harming may not be available to perform the necessary duties of being a camp counselor.

        That’s a very different issue than someone who has self-harmed in the past.

      4. Cat Steals Keyboard*

        Excuse me?

        What if I said exposure to someone with symptoms of cancer or MS or a missing limb was ‘upsetting’?

        People with mental health issues have a legal right to have adjustments made in the workplace. This kind of stigmatising is not okay. Society makes it seem otherwise, but that doesn’t make it okay.

        1. Cat Steals Keyboard*

          My point being: your discomfort doesn’t negate someone’s legal rights to protection in the workplace.

          1. Temperance*

            I vehemently disagree with this. It’s not about “comfort”, it’s about the fact that these two counselors in particular are unable to perform specific functions of their jobs.

            I also dislike how you are completely failing to acknowledge that it very well could be traumatizing to a child to walk in on a counselor engaging in self-harm, or having PTSD episodes in the middle of the woods. If I’m sending my child to camp, and I find out that my kid was in the middle of the woods with someone incapable to protecting him/her, I’m going to sue the camp.

            1. Relly*

              To be fair, we only know for sure that one of the counselors is unable to perform her duties. The other was simply listed as a bad role model.

              I completely agree that seeing someone in an active crisis state would be upsetting, but we don’t actually know if counselor #1 was ever self-harming in front of children, or if the OP simply noticed her old scars. There’s quite a difference between the two, and I wish the OP would clarify.

            2. Elliot*

              The LW did not say that anyone was engaging in self-harm while on the job or having PTSD flashbacks in front of clients. Those would be separate issues entirely.

              As far as ability to protect children, how about someone with epilepsy who could possibly have a seizure in front of the children? How about someone with diabetes who could faint? How about someone who is allergic to bees and gets stung? There are a million scenarios that could make someone temporarily unable to “protect” children. This is why, I would assume any counselor would not be alone in that situation. If they are alone, again, that’s another issue in itself, and a huge liability for the employee and the employer regardless of who’s involved. Even volunteer scoutmasters don’t go on overnight trips without other adults to help.

              1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                +a million

                I can’t think of any time I was on any kind of a camp excursion without at least two counselors along, for this very specific reason. One person can be incapacitated by an accident, so there needs to be a backup. (Granted, all my camp experiences were horse camp, so there is extra risk there.)

              2. Temperance*

                I think that people with certain physical illnesses are also not fit to be responsible for groups of children. I’m not sure why so many commenters are bringing up physical health issues as a sort of “gotcha!”

                A person with poorly-controlled epilepsy or diabetes cannot be the only adult responsible for a group of kids, and probably shouldn’t be at a camp in the middle of nowhere, away from medical services. A person with a severe, life-threatening allergy to bees also shouldn’t be at a camp, in the woods, where bees live and where medical care is often quite far away.

                I went to GS camp for years, and we always had a single counselor per cabin.

                1. Turanga Leela*

                  Yeah, I was going to say this. Someone who has frequent seizures or a life-threatening bee allergy might not be able to be a camp counselor, both for his/her own safety and for that of the kids. Just like with mental illness, it would depend a lot on the nature and location of the job and how well the person’s illness was controlled… which is why, again, it’s helpful to focus on whether the person can perform the job duties.

                2. politiktity*

                  I also went to camp for years, and you are 100% wrong. 9 years as a camper, 1 as a counselor. 68 weeks in the middle of nowhere.

                  I have anxiety and depression, and honestly, the camp environment is one of the few places that it was controlled by environment alone, rather than the necessary medication and therapy I need now in a regular 9-5. My symptoms would reappear at school each year, but I didn’t get formally diagnosed until I was in my 20s. I was a great camp counselor. And because I was a great camp counselor, those employers didn’t know that I had a mental illness, and that mental illness does not have to impact my work product.

                  And while there might only be one camp counselor per cabin, that doesn’t mean that the counselor is without help. Campouts were typically with multiple cabins, with multiple counselors and a unit leader. If there was swimming, we would ensure there were an appropriate number of lifeguards. I remember once we went spelunking, and many campers (me included!) and at least one counselor sat out one of the trails due to claustrophobia.

                  And each camp has emergency medical care. We had a licensed nurse who could handle most issues. This is critical at a camp in the middle of nowhere because you will get broken bones, and allergies and lice and other issues. Just because you didn’t see that safety net for counselors doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Especially at girl scout camps.

              3. Anna*

                Actually, the OP followed up saying exactly that. The counselor who was suffering symptoms of ED and self-harm regularly closely monitored what she ate and made disparaging comments about food. She would show up for her shift with clear evidence of self-harm and would talk about cutting herself if things didn’t work out a certain way. So all in all, not a great scene for the children she’s entrusted to look out for. OP is more concerned about hiring people who do not have their illnesses under control; not with excluding an entire swath of the population based on fear alone.

        2. Temperance*

          It’s not actually comparable, though. All of the examples you cite are more comparable to the person whose symptoms are under control. If we’re going to go there, we wouldn’t expect a person undergoing active chemo and dealing with the resulting symptoms, or in an MS episode, or who was dealing with an active, urgent physical health problem to be capable of leading kids.

          You’re also not entirely correct. While accommodations are required under the ADA, this is only if they are not overly burdensome on the workplace. A camp counselor with PTSD who has active flashbacks can’t safely take children on camping trips, and a counselor who is engaging in self-harm in front of children is not fit to lead said children.

          1. Jesmlet*

            And accommodations are only required if the employee discloses they have a disability. If someone says they just don’t like being in the dark and don’t mention the PTSD, the employer isn’t actually required to do anything to accommodate them.

    2. Jesmlet*

      As someone with annoyingly persistent scars, I dislike the way it’s said but I understand the general premise. Having a role model openly display less than ideal habits (whether past or present) is not the best situation. If I was hiring for this job I probably wouldn’t want counselors to smoke cigarettes or curse in plain view of campers and I don’t think this is all too dissimilar.

      As far as the contagiousness, there are studies that show ripple effects when one person in a small community engages in a negative behavior. I’m thinking specifically of suicide in small Oceanic island communities but I can imagine this may happen with eating disorders or cutting as well.

      1. leslie knope*

        “I probably wouldn’t want counselors to smoke cigarettes or curse in plain view of campers and I don’t think this is all too dissimilar.”

        and what do oceanic island communities have to do with camp? i’m very confused.

        1. Jesmlet*

          Not understanding your objection to my point since you didn’t actually say anything about it. Having someone with a line of scars on their arm or who within earshot throws up every day in the bathroom is not all that unlike having a counselor smoking outside during their breaks or cursing in front of campers. You don’t want people openly doing these things in front of the campers. And this is coming from someone who has had both the scars and the ED.

          The point is that when certain ideas are introduced into groups, that can cause others who may have been contemplating those ideas to go through with them.

            1. Jesmlet*

              They are both behaviors that should not be encouraged. And before you come back at me with, ‘it’s a mental health condition, it can’t be helped’, I’ll say that’s only true after the first time. I can’t imagine a situation where I would’ve started doing either if I didn’t have friends who did and put the idea into my head.

                1. Jesmlet*

                  I’ll acknowledge that and apologize if my opinion offended you or anyone else. It’s obviously just my perspective and not the only way to look at this. I’m not claiming to have all the answers just because I experienced it too. I think it’s interesting to see how different opinions can be of people who have experienced similar things.

              1. peachie*

                Oh, come on. It’s NOT A CHOICE. I started self-harming when I was 5 years old; I didn’t even see media representation of self-harm until I was in middle school, nor did I know anyone who did.

                1. Jesmlet*

                  Like leslie knope and eventually I acknowledged, not everyone’s experience is the same and it’s my mistake for characterizing mine as universal. I strongly believe that I chose to cut and chose to restrict and binge/purge and eventually chose to stop. That’s how I see it, but am now recognizing that maybe others were originally compelled by things they couldn’t control. My way of rationalizing my personal illness is by accepting my choices both good and bad. I feel like accepting control over them makes me stronger today and helps me avoid any potential backslide. I used to work with drug users and saw many of them who viewed it in the same way and that’s just how we choose to cope but my apologies to anyone who has experienced it differently.

              2. Bird*

                The mental health condition existed before the behavior, though. But, the way you’re phrasing your comments, it sounds a lot like you believe that cutting, depression, or eating disorders are contagious somehow.

                1. Jesmlet*

                  I do think the behavior is contagious, but obviously not the underlying issue. There are so many times today that I wish I had found an alternative coping mechanism for my depression if only I had known how much I would regret that choice (choice for me, not for everyone).

          1. Cordelia Naismith*

            I don’t think having scars makes you unfit to be a camp counselor. Actively cutting yourself in front of your campers would, but having scars on your arm? How would that make you unfit?

            1. Jesmlet*

              Obviously actively cutting yourself in front of them is bad, but I also think it’s bad if you show up every day with new and obvious self-harm scars on your arm.

              1. Cordelia Naismith*

                Oh, okay, got it. I was confused by your use of the word scar, because to me that implies an old, healed wound from the past, not a new, unhealed injury.

              2. Elliot*

                What’s interesting is that only women are accused of self harm when they show up with self inflicted wounds. Same with being thin/not eating and eating disorders. In men with the exact same symptoms, it’s never “obvious.” There is a huge degree of sexism surrounding the accusations of having/living with these disorders.

                For instance, I have an ED, I’m never accused of having an ED, yet a severely underweight coworker is accused of having one all the time, even though her low body weight comes from another health condition. I was guilty of it, too. I assumed she had an ED like me until one day she asked me a food question and we started talking about our diets. I think she assumed I had a digestive disease like her.

                1. Jesmlet*

                  I would agree in terms of ED, but maybe not so much with cutting. Cutting is probably seen more as a problem more women have than men but at the same time if you see parallel lines running up a man’s arm, most of us would assume that’s self harm and not just a really precise cat scratch.

        2. fposte*

          I believe she’s referring to the instances of suicide contagion (though you could have gone to Palo Alto High for that, too), where one outlier event became the template for a common social pattern. It’s pretty common with a lot of social behaviors, I think–mass shootings are huge influences on the likelihood of another mass shooting happening, for instance.

          I personally don’t care about cursing, diagnoses, or past scars, but I do (as somebody who was a camper and a counselor) want to ensure that the staff can deal resiliently and safely with the challenges of isolation and responsibility that camp brings.

    3. Venus Supreme*

      I agree. I was a peer mentor in high school, a current mentor to newly-graduated/close to graduating college students, and I love working internship fairs for my highly-specialized industry. I was a cutter for over 10 years. I live with depression. I have been able to support these young people on professional and personal issues even when my personal life hits a low.

      Mental issues do not make you a poor role model.
      Mental issues do not make you a poor role model.
      Mental issues do not make you a poor role model.

    4. Turanga Leela*

      I understand your resentment, but eating disorders actually may be contagious. The OP (appropriately) doesn’t go into the counselors’ specific behaviors, but I can think of a lot of ways where a counselor with an untreated ED and cutting could be a “bad role model.” For example, if she’s talking a lot with the kids about food and dieting, that’s not appropriate at most camps. (That could also happen with someone who doesn’t have an ED, which is why it was helpful for Alison to suggest questions about behaviors and experiences rather than mental illnesses.)

      There are many people with mental illnesses who work with kids as part of their jobs and are great at it. It sounds like the OP had two cases where the illness was affecting the employees’ ability to do their jobs well, which can also happen.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I saw a lot of behavioral contagion at camp; I think that’s pretty natural, because there’s a really high-impact dynamic between kids and people who are more like older peers/sibs than adults. And there’s a lot less privacy than in regular life, so it’s tough to keep active binging or cutting a secret.

      2. cbackson*

        I had to stop living with a roommate when I was in treatment for my ED, because I could tell that she was starting to pick up ED habits and behaviors from me and it was horribly upsetting (like, I was trying to STOP doing those things). Obviously, that wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t have an underlying mental health condition, but the means of manifesting that condition can definitely be acquired.

      3. Episkey*

        I have to agree with Leela & Temperance here.

        I had an ED in my mid-late teens and I don’t think I would have been a great role model for kids while I was actively going through the disorder.

        There are lots of reasons, but some of the ones I can think of are: extreme reluctance to eat in front of other people/only eating a tiny amount of very specific foods, strange/odd “rituals” when eating, a really unhealthy relationship & view of food that I would worry would get transferred to young, impressionable kids.

        In addition, there is the fact that (with anorexia, especially) you are eating so few calories that you are constantly preoccupied with thinking about food, you are more likely to be weak, have little energy, feel faint etc — all of which are not so great for running around with/being active with small kids and focusing your energies on them.

        Plus (and this was true for me, it might not be for everyone) — I was constantly in a really emotional state where I could & would cry easily and take things very personally….the other thing with EDs is that they kind of make you a jerk. Not exactly a jerk like a mean person, but they make you very self-involved and wrapped up in your own mind… When I think back to that time, I probably would have wanted to slap someone who was acting the same way I was. And I didn’t see it at the time AT ALL. I couldn’t see it because the ED takes over your life.

        I really don’t think I would have made a competent camp counselor in the midst of all that.

        NOW (15 years later), I would be fine — but I’ve recovered and am no longer in that head space.

    5. The IT Manager*

      I read the question as the counselor was actively suffering from an eating disorder and cutting (not recovering or surviving). Therefore they are modeling the exact wrong behavior on how to deal with stress.

  6. Trout 'Waver*

    What is a little chilling to me about this letter is the turn-over. Unless the entire staff is being replaced each year (which doesn’t tend to be the case), did the staffers with mental illnesses specifically not get renewed because they have mental illnesses?

    1. Cat Steals Keyboard*

      It sounds like it. And that would suck. Because the correct thing to do is provide support to help them do their jobs.

      1. Beth*

        Well this is summer camp. Summer over = camp over = counselors find something else. The same group may not always be available for the next summer. Just guessing.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          In what way are the children being placed in danger?

          If someone is actively engaging in self-harm that’s one thing. But if they have a mental illness that is currently being managed, that’s something completely different.

          In regards to the staffer with PTSD, depending on the nature of the camp, there may be roles that don’t involve camping overnight in the woods. Heck, the big boss or the camp nurse or someone else could step in to lead the overnight camp. If you sold it to the kids, they’d probably love it.

          1. Temperance*

            If their counselor has PTSD, and can’t function in the dark, they’re not safe with him/her. Even using your logic, I wouldn’t want to rehire someone who had this sort of incident happen (because I’m assuming that the counselor tried taking the kids overnight and it ended horribly, judging by the letter), becuase I wouldn’t be able to trust their ability to properly supervise the kids in case they had another flashback.

            If their counselor is actively self-harming, which sounds like the counselor in this scenario was, the counselor isn’t fit to work with children, especially since in a camp setting, the opportunities for a kid to walk in on the counselor are many.

            I said upthread that treated and controlled mental illness is vastly different.

            1. Jesmlet*

              I think the problem with rehiring is that you already know about the disability at this point. If it’s feasible to have some counselors do overnights and not this one, then that’s the direction you should legally and morally be going.

              1. Temperance*

                Just thinking outside the box – if the counselor has flashbacks in the dark, what would she do if the power goes out and they have no light in her cabin? Or if one of the kids accidentally triggers her? Kids do stupid crap like turning off all the lights in a room to scare each other. (This happened at every single Girl Scout camp I ever attended, ever.)

                1. Jesmlet*

                  Go outside? I don’t know but from a legal standpoint, it seems like if there’s enough staff to cover the overnights, they can’t really refuse to hire just based on this point. It’s possibly inconvenient, but not so inconvenient that you shouldn’t have to try to do it if they’re completely competent in other areas.

                  We were trying once to get a deaf client of ours a job at Home Depot. The employer said it would be difficult because what if there was an emergency and she couldn’t hear the alarms. Our response was if she couldn’t hear the alarms, that meant the deaf customers couldn’t either and how hard would it be to install flashing lights (which should have already been there). A little off topic but it reminded me of this situation.

      2. Alton*

        I do think that’s a question the OP should considee. Are there reasonable accommodations that can be made here, and can they do more to make them available to people?

        Is participating in overnight camping trips an essential duty of the job, or can they make an accommodation? How would they handle it, for example, if someone had sleep apnea and the sleeping arrangements on the camping trips couldn’t accommodate their needs? They may need to be clearer about which functions of the job are truly essential, and be more open to providing accommodation when possible.

    2. blackcat*

      Not renewing the one who can’t do overnight camping makes sense, though. At a lot of camps, that’s a true job requirement. There is likely no way to reasonably accommodate someone who can’t be out in the dark. So firing the counselor seems reasonable in that case. They’re not being fired for the mental illness, they’re being fired for being unable to perform a core job task.

      That said, I think screening for comfort walking around the woods at night should be super important in the hiring process. Will counselors be responsible for taking kids camping far from facilities? Will they lead night hikes? If so, they need to know that ahead of time and self-select out of they are unable to perform those crucial job functions.

      1. DeskBird*

        I think the really key part of jobs like this is the ability to respond well in an emergency situation. If a camper snuck out at night and got hurt – would the counselor with PTSD be able to keep calm and help? Would they have an episode? If they had to search the woods at night for a missing person would they be a liability?

        I worked with a lifeguard once who had a past trauma at the job. A big storm blew though one day with tornado warnings and she absolutely lost it – someone really could have gotten hurt. I would never, ever put her in charge of a group of children in an outdoor setting. If the safety and welfare of a group of children are even partially in your hands you have to be able to keep a level head – and someone that has panic attacks in the dark does not sound like that person – in a summer camp in the woods.

        1. blackcat*

          Speaking from experience, it is very hard but very important to stay calm while shoving children into a supply closet during a tornado warning. It’s the adult’s job to keep the kids calm (or, alternatively in my case, try to convince teenagers NO THIS IS FOR REALZ GUYS STOP SNAP CHATTING PICTURES OF THE STORM AND GET IN THIS DAMN CLOSET).

    3. Temperance*

      I wouldn’t renew the contracts of the staff members who were having PTSD episodes in the woods and engaging in self-harm in front of kids. I don’t see an issue with this.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        It is a big leap to go from what the letter writer wrote to engaging in self-harm in front of kids and having PTSD episodes in the woods.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            What a rude reply.

            It is a big leap. Just because someone has a disorder doesn’t mean they are doing that behavior all the time.

            It’s like if I said I can’t chop wood because I have a trick shoulder and there’s a chance it could be dislocated. That doesn’t mean my arm is hanging out of the socket or that I’m in any kind of pain. It just means I can’t split wood.

            Likewise, if someone was deathly allergic to bees, would you fire them? You’d make sure their condition was well managed. In this case, you would make sure they have access to an epi-pen and that emergency treatment is reachable.

            1. Temperance*

              It’s rude because I read the letter and interpreted from the context within. I’m not doing mental gymnastics to make excuses for it.

              You are comparing apples to oranges here, although I guess your bee analogy is probably a bit more realistic than the wood chopping one. A person with a deadly allergy to bees would presumably be smart enough not to take a job at a camp in the middle of nowhere, with very limited access to emergency services.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                It is not apples and oranges and that is the point. All 5 examples (eating disorder, cutting, PTSD, trick shoulder, bee allergy) are medical conditions that affect what people can do. To divide them into ‘acceptable’ (physical injuries/conditions) and ‘unacceptable’ (mental illnesses) is stigmatizing, biased, and wrong.

                “Actually, it isn’t” is a rude reply because it’s very dismissive. Also, please don’t refer to my perfectly normal thought processes as “mental gymnastics”. That too is rude and dismissive and out of place here.

                1. Temperance*

                  Okay, but literally no one has done that. No one has said “physical health issues are fine, mental are always bad”. Most people have taken the line that people with active illness symptoms aren’t really fit to be in charge of children.

                  I pointed out where I picked up my context, and that I wasn’t reaching when I made these incredibly reasonable conclusions. Nothing about you.

                2. Trout 'Waver*

                  Ok then, why are mental illnesses apples and physical limitations oranges?

                  And yes, people have literally done that. It is unclear from the letter whether the mental illnesses in question are treated and well-managed. But people like you are immediately jumping to the conclusion that they aren’t. People further down thread are talking about how people with mental illnesses don’t have the stamina or fortitude to handle children. You yourself are saying they pose a danger to children.

                  There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness. Perpetuating that stigma hurts people and prevents them from seeking the help they need. Don’t do that please.

                3. blackcat*

                  I have friends who work at camps/in outdoor adventure stuff. People with severe bee allergies *are* disqualified for some jobs where they would be far in the back country (an epi-pen is a temporary treatment until you get to a hospital). Even if the employee would be comfortable with it, the insurance provider would be up in arms if they knew. There are plenty of times when emergency services just aren’t reachable, and that’s a risk with certain activities. The scariest thing of getting wilderness first aid training for me was getting the long list of things where they were like “If this happens, the person is dead.”

                  Yes, it is unfortunate that certain conditions, mental and physical, disqualify people from certain jobs. The law requires *reasonable* accommodations be made. Sometimes, there just aren’t reasonable accommodations to be made.

                4. Temperance*

                  I think we need to agree to disagree. I see a huge difference between comments that all people with mental health issues are defacto unfit to supervise children and pointing out that certain symptoms of mental illness can be traumatizing to children and/or make a person unfit to be in charge of children. I feel the same way about a person with poorly-controlled epilepsy, or allergy to bees, or any other health condition that could seriously impair the person.

                  My comments have indicated that I believe a person with active mental health symptoms like active PTSD that could be triggered by things children do (counselor in letter) or who is actively self-harming or engaging in eating-disordered behaviors, is not fit to be responsible for groups of children because it could put the kids in danger or traumatize them. I don’t see this as a reach, especially because I have very clearly noted the difference between a person who has overcome self-harm or disordered eating/controlled PTSD and someone who is experiencing symptoms.

                5. Trout 'Waver*

                  Nobody is suggesting that kids should be put in danger. Nobody is disagreeing about that.

                  It is unclear from the letter whether the people can be accommodated or not and whether their illnesses are well-managed or not. Hopefully we can at least agree on that.

                  To go from there to suggesting that kids are being put in danger is a large, stigmatizing leap. “Ceresi is putting kids in danger.” is not a logical follow-up to “Ceresi has a mental illness that affects her ability to do her job.” even if that job involves kids. More information is necessary.

        1. blackcat*

          The having PTSD symptoms in the woods is basically what’s described, though.

          The situation with the self-harming employee is less clear.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            It is unclear to me whether the staffer said they can’t do it because they would have flashbacks, or that the staffer was actively having PTSD attacks in front of children.

            1. Aurion*

              Genuine question: what difference does it make? I gather having a full-blown PTSD attack is more severe and distressing, but it sounds like in both your scenarios the staffer would be unable to go on overnight camp-outs, which is reflected in the OP’s post, and it sounds to be like overnight camp-outs is a requirement of this job which sounds reasonable.

              I suppose you can grab some other adult to lead the camp-outs, but I feel like being able to go camping out in the woods is a pretty critical job requirement for a camp counselor and a reasonable expectation. It’d be different if the job was an admin assistant in an an office.

              The way I read Alison’s advice wasn’t to suss out Do You Have A Mental Illness, but “can you perform the core duties of this job?” which I feel is a fair line of inquiry for all applicants, mentally ill or not. Plenty of people without mental illnesses are ill-equipped to handle a bunch of kids overnight in the woods.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                Because if someone had PTSD episodes that put children in danger their condition by definition is not well controlled and the children need to be protected.

                If someone knows their triggers and has had medical treatment (drugs, therapy, etc) and their illness is well-managed, they aren’t a danger to the children and should be accommodated if possible.

                1. Temperance*

                  In the letter, it is noted that the person with PTSD is afraid of the dark and that’s her trigger. It’s not really possible to avoid situations at a camp where you would be exposed to darkness, though. The power could go out, a bunch of kids could hit all the light switches as a prank (happened at literally every camp I ever went to), … anything.

                2. Trout 'Waver*

                  You’re reaching again. Just because someone has PTSD and is afraid of the dark, that doesn’t mean all darkness is triggering. It’s can be disrespectful to people with PTSD to make those types of assumptions.

              2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

                I had the same genuine question. The LW states, “the second was afraid of the dark and would have serious flashbacks, making overnight campouts impossible.”

                If it is impossible for a person to do a core responsibility of the position, whether there is an incident or they declare that the cannot do part of the job, why is it unreasonable not to hire them?

            2. Anna*

              OP confirmed the person with the ED/cutting was actively engaged in cutting while at camp and was clearly suffering from the ED. So this is no longer a hypothetical; the counselor was engaging in unsafe behaviors and by extension creating an unsafe environment for the kids.

    4. Kate*

      I agree that the phrasing in this letter seems to feed into the stigma against people with mental health issues, and that’s problematic. But I didn’t think it was odd that they would be hiring new staff every year. I went to summer camp as a kid, and aside from a few regular staff members, we had a fresh batch of counselors every summer. They were mostly teenagers or college students, so the turnover was high as people that age go through a lot of life changes and can’t necessarily commit to camp year after year.

      The way I interpreted this letter was that OP was asking how to suss out problems that would interfere with camp duties as the hiring process would be a yearly thing. I didn’t think there was anything there to suggest she had fired the counselors that raised these concerns.

    5. Always Anon*

      In a lot of camps of this nature, the employees are seasonal and there is a ton of turnover. I was a camp counselor for many years at a variety of camps, and there would be a few counselor who would return each season, but there would be a lot of turn over. And for year long camps, the turn over was worse because typically the counselors were college aged kids who had classes that conflicted or an internship, etc.

    6. tink*

      I don’t understand why turnover would be “chilling” in a seasonal industry like a summer camp. Seasonal work tends to have a lot of churn, in my experience, because it’s attractive to students and others who are able to work just a few months out of the year. People come on as counselors for campers and realize they can’t stand working with that many children at once, they find other positions that pay better, they move into an industry that doesn’t allow them to take several months out to work elsewhere, etc.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        You’re right. Chilling is too strong of a word. Some camps turn over all the counselors every year and some have the same ones come back for years. We can’t tell which applies to this particular camp.

  7. KM*

    Yeah…I am a little upset about the wording of this one as well. As someone who is in recovery from alcoholism, eating disorders and PTSD, I would hate if I wasn’t hired or thought less of because of my past issues which I didn’t choose.

    Now, if I were drinking again regularly, or in the throes of a current eating disorder I could see that being a problem. But to say these people aren’t role models? This is why mental health issues have such a stigma surrounding them. I never woke up one day and said “Hey! I want to be an alcoholic.”

    It almost sounds like the author wants to discriminate against people with those issues. None of my employers have anything to say about my work ethic and my reviews will vouch for that.

    1. Venus Supreme*

      I just want to say congratulations on your recovery with your alcoholism, PTSD, and ED. Addiction is a nasty fellow. Hearing recovery stories gives me hope that my dad will be sober one day.

    2. Always Anon*

      I think there is a significant difference between past issues and ongoing issues. We don’t know if the counselor with the eating disorder was in recovery or recognized her disorder or if she was in major denial. For the person who had PTSD, we have no idea if the night terrors they experienced were uncontrolled or if they were seeking treatment and had developed some coping mechanisms.

      I think people of types can be awesome role models for kids, and I think people who have a past, have encountered some sort of life event that shaped them (be that a mental, physical, or emotional illness), serve as awesome role models. However, in this sort of setting, the focus needs to be on the campers. When someone is actively in the middle of a untreated issue like PTSD or an ED, then the focus gets diverted to the counselor. I think the issue is less of a role model issue, but more about the fact that the counselor can no longer perform the job they were hired to do.

      1. Anna*

        The counselor with the ED/cutting was not in recovery. She was actively engaging in behaviors stemming from her illness.

  8. Christian Troy*

    The LW wrote in with legitimate concerns based on previous experiences with staff who had eating disorders and PTSD. Kids are looking at the staff as examples and when it’s time to eat in the cafeteria and the food includes pizza or chips or whatever, it’s going to be really obvious when a staffer isn’t participating and isolating themselves from the activity. Kids often mimic behavior they don’t understand. If someone is unable to cope in the dark, they won’t be able to exercise the best judgement or serve as a calming force for kids if they’re homesick or upset.

    I really like this website at times, but this is one letter where I think people are off the mark in some of their comments. You need a certain amount of mental and emotional stamina when you’re responsible for kids who are completely dependent on you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with posing situational questions to get information how people are going to react or at least apprise them of the expectation of staff behavior. Camp is about having fun and making positive memories with the welfare of the children always the number one priority.

    1. anon name required*

      If someone isn’t eat pizza with everyone else, I think it’s a pretty far stretch to assume they have an ED or that they’re isolating themselves or unintentionally making kids mimic their behavior.

      1. Not Karen*

        No, but as a camp counselor it is important to bond with your campers by participating in activities with them, whether that be capture the flag or lunch.

        1. Elliot*

          What if the employee had severe allergies or other dietary restrictions that made them unable to eat with the kids? Would it still be fair to discriminate against them?

          1. Temperance*

            I think it would be a good thing for kids to see a counselor who had food allergies or kept kosher.

            I don’t think “discriminate” is really a fair word to use when the person is not fit for the job, though.

            1. Elliot*

              How would a child know why a counselor wasn’t eating? Most people with eating disorders have elaborate lies surrounding why they don’t eat, anyways.

              1. Jesmlet*

                Junior high school students know what eating disorders are. These aren’t 5 year olds. Not saying it makes her unfit, but it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out.

                1. Elliot*

                  Not everyone who has an eating disorder is underweight. Not everyone who is underweight has an eating disorder. Not everyone who skips meals regularly has an eating disorder. Not everyone who has an eating disorder visibly skips meals. And yes, kids know what eating disorders are, but they do not have the capability to diagnose them.

                2. Jesmlet*

                  No one’s talking about official diagnoses here. The point is that if adolescents see someone sit at lunch and not eat anything every single day for weeks on end, they are going to assume that person has an eating disorder. Sometimes it’s more about the perception than the reality.

              2. Temperance*

                I didn’t make the comment about not eating, and FWIW, I agree with you on this particular point. A girl walking in on her female counselor purging is a whole different ball of wax, though.

              3. Cat*

                Okay, as someone who has had an eating disorder, an authority figure modeling the lies and evasions they use to avoid eating is the last thing in the world I’d want to expose young women too. Not all mental health issues are disqualifications for this job–I have ones now and they wouldn’t be–but that one is. I am completely comfortable saying that at that point in my life I would not have been a suitable employee for a job that involved eating with young people every day.

              4. Anna*

                This particular counselor wasn’t eating very much and was talking about food disparagingly. That’s what you need to know and all you need to know. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the OP has probably been through some training to recognize these behaviors and what they might mean and that is why she was concerned. Whether or not the children actually know why the counselor isn’t eating is not actually the issue. The issue is that the counselor wasn’t able to model positive behavior for the kids in her care and therefore was unable to perform her job.

          2. Christian Troy*

            At my camp, part of the job was eating with the kids. You had to make sure they were actually eating food and drinking fluids and asking them how stuff is going because they’re the priority. If you can’t sit there and eat food with them, then I don’t know how you could do the job. This wasn’t a wealthy private camp with a private chef; it was a generic YMCA sleep away place that had a generic contract with Sodexo for fruit punch and pizza.

            So I don’t know what to tell you in terms of what an accommodation looks like for someone with an allergy. I can only tell you my camp was limited in resources and this was what it looked like and this is what the job entailed.

        2. Marvel*

          One of my best friends happens to be a person who generally doesn’t eat lunch. He doesn’t have an ED; he just prefers not to, and to have a big breakfast and a big dinner instead, because he feels like he has more energy when he manages his diet that way. People… are different. Why are we trying to protect children from differences?

    2. Muriel Heslop*

      I am a middle school teacher and I agree. The standard for working with children is totally different than working with adults. The expectation is different and there is an emotional component that is critical. Asking insightful questions about someone’s ability to do specific tasks sounds practical and sound. (It’s something I wish my principal would do!)

      I struggled with both anorexia and bulimia as well as the attendant emotional struggles that go with addiction. Personally, teaching would have been incredibly difficult – probably too difficult – if I had tried to do it before I entered recovery.

      1. blackcat*

        +1 from a former teacher, former sufferer of PTSD.

        Having had some personal struggles *in the past* made me a better teacher. My experiences made me the go to teacher when a kid had a psychotic break on an overnight trip (not a fun experience for anyone, but at least I had the tools/skill set to get the kid grounded).

        Taking care of kids, even older teens, in a 24hr/day setting is HARD. Actively struggling with mental illness can make it impossible. Treated mental illnesses, or past experiences with mental illness can be an asset. There is a world of difference.

      2. Government Worker*

        The standard for a nearly 24/7 position like camp counselor is also different. I did a week as a volunteer adult chaperone for a religious retreat for high schoolers, and I was on the overnight shift. These were basically good kids, and even so it was possibly the most draining week of my life. One kid had a neurological episode due to an undisclosed condition and had to leave, one girl had a total (and totally understandable) meltdown due to some circumstances around the recent death of a family member that resulted in hours of crying in the middle of the night, there was tons of relationship drama, I think a couple of kids came out of the closet, etc. Plus they were getting into trouble by locking up the elevator so I was on the phone with maintenance and intoxicated homeless people stopped by a couple of times so I was handling security issues.

        There’s a certain level of having your sh*t together and being able to cope with curveballs that’s necessary for being responsible for groups of young people. Plenty of people with mental health conditions meet that threshhold, but it sounds like OP ran across a couple who didn’t. She is justifiably concerned with beefing up their interview process to prevent these problems from recurring, and Alison has given her good advice on how to do that.

    3. Maya Elena*

      Completely agree. And honestly, the welfare of the hypothetical job applicant, while it deserves due consideration, should be secondary to the welfare of the campers.

  9. Fluke Skywalker*

    Hmm. Another person who lives with mental illness here, and I feel like the OP just worded things badly. I’m personally *for* asking questions like the ones Alison suggested, because it would give me the opportunity during an interview to decide if the job is for me. It’s important for ALL the candidates to know what the job entails so that they can decide whether they want to do those things or not.

    It’s not like you have to disclose a mental illness immediately. If an interviewer says, “A big part of this job is overnight camps in the woods with the kids. Is that something you’d be able to handle in this position?” I’m not going to immediately say “Well, no, because I have intense, diagnosed anxiety, and being out in the woods in the dark would cause me to have a complete meltdown, and no one needs to see that”. I could say “I don’t think that’s something I can handle, although all the other parts of the job sound exciting!” or “I actually have a disability that would prevent me from participating in that aspect of the job” or whatever. *shrug*

    1. Turanga Leela*

      This is a good point. I don’t have PTSD, but I am afraid of the dark. I can handle most camping, but if it involves a walk through pitch-black woods with just a flashlight, I will be a wreck by the end (and definitely not up to caring for children).

      Asking about mental health conditions wouldn’t screen me out, but asking me if I could handle overnight camping trips would.

  10. animaniactoo*

    As a former regular summer sleepaway camper, please allow me to say – some of my counselors were not the best role models, despite being otherwise stable people and not having mental disorders. One of those was the best summer of my life. It was ridiculous and it was fun and empowering as hell.

    You also give kids far too little credit. In general, we were pretty aware if somebody was “off” and that was not somebody we were looking towards as a role model of how to be.

    And among other reasons why Alison’s questions are particularly relevant for all potential employees – I am sure that I personally gave one of my counselors some mild PTSD. Kid logic got me into danger and she had to rescue me from it and I’m sure it left a lasting impact. You want people like her who aren’t going to crumble at it.

    1. Ros*

      “You also give kids far too little credit. In general, we were pretty aware if somebody was “off” and that was not somebody we were looking towards as a role model of how to be.”


      Also, the complete dependence of kids on adults totally depends on age. Like, if I take my daughter camping, she’s pretty damned dependant on me – she’s 2. A 5-year old is less dependant, but would probably need a lot of help. But camp can include 12-13-year-olds… and, much as a lot of adults like to stick their heads in the sand about that, that’s an age group that typically deals with eating disorders, self-harm, depression, sex/sexual activity, etc. They’re not innocent children needing to be protected, they’re growing into teenagers who need some lookout/perspective/framework and guidance, but who are also experiencing the world on their own terms, much as many parents would seem to like to deny it.

      That said, in practical terms: a counsellor showing up and being visibly affected by self-harm/eating disorders/whatever (to be clear: undealt with and active issue), or being unable to perform a core function of the job: problem. A counsellor showing up and in control of their shit (or past shit) would probably be way more relate-able to a lot of the kids, and way more in tune to potential issues with that age group. And frankly, saying “X can’t be your counsellor at the camp-out next week because of These Reasons, so instead Y will be there, you’ll have a great time!” might demystify mental health issues for a whole population of kids who are pretty likely to face them themselves at some point.

  11. Relly*

    OP, I want to push back against the idea that those who struggle with mental health are bad role models or influences on kids.

    My teenage niece is on ADHD medication, and worried that it made her different from other kids. I’m on one of those same medications myself. When she found out her aunt is just another person who needs meds — when I talked to her openly about some of my own experiences — it helped her realize how normal and okay she is.

    I have a health care coach who is getting me through some of my lifelong disordered patterns around food. She knows exactly what I’m going through, because she herself had similar problems for most of her life. Her advice has been invaluable; she understands my obstacles and setbacks because she’s been down that same hard road. And I believe that I can beat this, because she’s living proof.

    It’s not just that people with mental health issues can be good role models despite their issues. It’s that, sometimes, they can be amazing ones because of them. Some of the kids in this program might have benefitted from being able to see they aren’t alone.

    I understand that you don’t want your employees to be in a crisis state during the summer, and that’s perfectly reasonable. Your example of a counselor unable to stay overnight is a very legitimate concern. But I hope I’m misunderstanding what you mean by a good role model, or that the first person’s issues interfered with her work in a more concrete way than you indicated. (I don’t mean that dismissively; you needed to tell your story succinctly.)

  12. Not Karen*

    If you were afraid of the dark, why would you apply for a job at an overnight camp?

    I think it’s part of your duty as a job applicant to screen yourself out of jobs you could not do or would not be good at. I guess there’s a reason Starbucks has to include a question on their application asking whether or not you like coffee.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Because if you’re not really familiar with a sleepaway camp you can picture that you a cabin where you have some light going on around you, not realizing that you are going to be in charge of an overnight in the woods.

      Also, I don’t have to like coffee to be able to measure and add ingredients and serve it. I just have to not hate the smell of it.

      1. Maya Elena*

        But those excuses don’t make you more appealing for those jobs, and they don’t entitle you to get it.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Excuse? Reason. And nobody is talking about being entitled to get the position, simply why someone might *apply* for a position they are not qualified for.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Not all overnight camps are the “camp out in the woods” kind. I attended a summer camp for several years that was held on the campus of a high-end boarding school and had a regular contingent of overnighters, who all stayed in the dormitories.

      1. Aurion*

        But wouldn’t the actual campgrounds come up during the interview/orientation/whatever? I’m trying to wrap my mind around a camp counselor not knowing what type of camp they would be leading. True, not all camps are overnight in the woods, but surely by the time you get hired you know which type it would be?

        1. animaniactoo*

          Well that would depend on how well the person in charge of the hiring process does their job, wouldn’t it? If they assume that everyone knows that sleepaway camp involves an overnight wood hike (because that’s the only kind of sleepaway camp they’re familiar with), no, they’re not going to mention it and it’s going to be a surprise to everyone to find out it’s a problem.

      2. Kore*

        Yeah, I went to an overnight camp, and even though it was on traditional campgrounds, we didn’t really have many in the dark activities – we never did overnight trips, for example.

    3. AW*

      If you were afraid of the dark, why would you apply for a job at an overnight camp?

      I’m assuming they either didn’t know or didn’t realize the extent of their fear. There’s also a good chance that it wasn’t just the dark but the fact that they were in the dark *and* outdoors. That’s next level darkness, especially away from the lights in the city. We had a power outage recently and it was a really dramatic difference in how dark it was at night when all of the lights outside our home were also out.

      There’s also the fact that you can’t do anything about the dark outdoors (whereas indoors you could turn on a light) and that the darkness goes on for *forever*.

      I can easily see someone thinking that they’re OK dealing with the dark and then trying to do an overnight outdoors only to find out that that’s so much worse.

    4. Trout 'Waver*

      I went to the same overnight week-long camp for years as a kid. We had nice cabins or dorm-style bunks in a big lodge. There was no outdoor camping, even though it was way out in the woods.

    5. SimontheGreyWarden*

      I grew up camping with my parents, scout troop, and friends. All of these were at prepared parks with at least some occasional lights.
      The time we camped at the boundary waters was when I found out I am terrified of the actual dark; not because it is dark but because of what’s out there.

      1. Cafe au Lait*

        Yes, absolute dark is completely different than city or suburb dark.

        I was a camp counselor for a year. One of our groups was a school from downtown Detroit. For many of them, it was the first time they’d been out in the country. One group of kids absolutely freaked out when they walked just outside the range of light the dining hall provided. It’s a pretty immediately “Oh, this is ok” to “Oh crap, it’s dark now.”

        On top of that, the big movie hits for in the last couple of years (of this experience) involved an animal attacking humans. All the kids were a bit terrified that something was going to come bite them during that time at camp. Add in the dark, and scared kids became terrified kids.

  13. Anon attorney*

    I don’t have difficulty with the idea of using competency based questions to screen for people who can do the job tasks regardless of health status or background. The risk is that the definition of “doing the job” is constructed in such a way that a person with mental health issues can never give a satisfactory answer. It’s essential to define the competencies you require in an unbiased way, not just to ask the questions of all applicants. Have you considered involving a local mental health advocacy association to seek advice on unbiased hiring practices?

    1. Temperance*

      Serious question: would a local NAMI chapter be able to assist with this? My very limited experience with them is that since they advocate for people with mental illness (as they should, as is their mission!) they aren’t necessarily … open to admitting any issues relating to dealing with mental illness.

    2. Jesmlet*

      There are so many variations of mental illness that it’s nearly impossible to make it so anyone can do any job without accommodations. If the job screened out every person with a certain disability that would be one thing, but it seems this screens out every one with a particular disability with specific symptoms and triggers that aren’t under control. Different things.

  14. NW Mossy*

    One caveat for the OP is to be aware that no matter how well-tailored your hiring process is, sometimes, you do end up selecting someone who’s not a good fit. Alison’s suggestions will help tremendously in asking questions to help you find good fits and encourage those that aren’t to self-select out of a job that wouldn’t work for them, but it’s still possible for an issue to arise.

    However, that shouldn’t be taken as justification to assume that anyone with a mental health condition or other disability de facto can’t do the work – that’s wrong-headed. Instead, it’s better to say, “OK, this specific person was not a good match, and that fact doesn’t mean that every similarly situated person would produce the same mismatch.”

  15. chai latte*

    In being interviewed for a suicide hotline crisis counselor position, they do directly ask about mental health-having the commonality is great, but they want to make sure that you are far enough in a recovery process to be able to not trigger your mental health concern and to be ready to take on the secondary trauma of the work. This is similar to violence interrupters and other peer type roles (drug counseling, reentry from incarceration, sex trade, etc.). Peers are specifically sought out and have great direct experience and understanding; however, it can be potentially damaging to one’s own sobriety/getting out of the game/the lifestyle/etc. when in that role.

  16. animaniactoo*

    Also towards Alison’s advice here – it’s pretty likely that there were other counselors who had mental disorders and you neve realized it because it was managed well enough that it did not impact their ability to do their jobs.

    And that is the #1 reason why “having a mental disorder” is not something you should be trying to screen for just because you have seen 2 cases where it was a problem.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      it’s pretty likely that there were other counselors who had mental disorders and you neve realized it because it was managed well enough that it did not impact their ability to do their jobs.

      Amen times five million.

    2. hbc*

      Yeah, I feel like this calls for a Venn diagram. The People With A Mental Illness circle intersects with Lousy Camp Counselors circle, and yes, probably shares more area than the People Without A Mental Illness circle. But the People Who Can’t Handle The Dark circle is completely contained within the LCC circle, so best to focus on that rather than targeting mental illnesses.

    3. Ty*

      This is the best answer.

      Allison, the nuts and bolts of your answer weren’t bad, but you had a chance to publicly refute some pretty strong ableism*. I love your work, and hope that next time a question like this comes along, you consider your platform and your chance to dismantle stigma, which you so often do so well.

      *I don’t think the OP hates folks with mental illness. I think they are trying to keep their campers safe. But they are unintentionally creating mental health stigma. That’s what stigma is: It can come from good intentions and still be stigmatizing.

      1. TyphoidMary*

        Replying to my comment: posted before I finished typing my name. I am not Ty from earlier in the thread, I am TyphoidMary.

  17. LadyCop*

    Love this answer. As someone with Complex PTSD…I fear people would think it might interfere with my obviously challenging job…but the nature of my condition has never been an issue in work environments, it’s far more personal and social. Unfortunately, people hear anxiety or PTSD and think “violent person on drugs.” Neither of which are remotely true

    1. A Signer*

      +1. I have PTSD and it’s never impacted my abilities at work, or at least never affected my conduct/ability to take care of business in difficult and even triggering situations. I may fall apart once I get home or have to use my coping strategies to get through the rest of the workday, but I’m able to keep my cool on the surface and do my job. That might not be the case for every single person with mental illness, but it’s true for more of us than most people assume.

    2. Office Mercenary*

      “Unfortunately, people hear anxiety or PTSD and think “violent person on drugs.” Neither of which are remotely true”

      +1. As another person with Complex PTSD, I’m somewhere in between disappointed and appalled at the assumptions being made about PTSD symptoms in this thread. Everyone’s symptoms manifest differently. This individual was evidently triggered by being in the dark, but that’s not necessarily a problem for other people. If there is a crisis situation in which a counselor needs to be responsible for the kids’ safety, that’s not automatically a trigger for every PTSD patient ever. Speaking for myself, one of my symptoms is dissociation, and even when triggered I can be extremely calm under pressure. Work-related stress has very little effect on me, because it’s triggers specifically related to my trauma that hurt me.

      1. politiktity*

        Yep. My dissociation (which is symptom of my anxiety, not PTSD) makes me aces in a true crisis. It’s kinda like mania, in that it’s hard to acknowledge that while it’s a useful or enjoyable symptom, it’s not actually desirable because you can’t just pick and choose the other symptoms that go with it.

      2. Cat Steals Keyboard*

        I also have CPTSD and have worked – very effectively! – with at-risk kids. The kids used to open up to me almost instantly.

        In my case I had been to therapy and learned how to handle being triggered etc. The charity I worked for had the philosophy of ‘get your own oxygen mask on first’ so when I did struggle with one small thing my supervisor worked on it with me.

    3. Marvel*

      +1. I also have C-PTSD. It doesn’t come up at my job, literally ever, and I 100% concur with the response here. Screen for ability to do a job, not for a particular mental illness that MAY cause issues sometimes with certain people depending on the details.

  18. Amy the Rev*

    This reminds me of back when I was an ocean-front lifeguard, and one of our new hires had a (severe) phobia of blood. She didn’t want the job, but her parents made her apply (and knew some ppl in the town govt who owed them favors)…after a summer of nearly fainting every time a kid with a cut came by for a bandaid, she purposely failed the drug test at the beginning of the following summer so that there was no way she could be rehired…we knew she had purposefully failed it because she was about as straight-edge as they come, but a failed drug test resulted in being ineligible for re-hire in our town, so even her parents couldnt pull the strings to get her back in the job…

  19. animaniactoo*

    Now I am sad. I went and looked up my former camp and it was sold almost 10 years ago.

    On the plus side, it’s now a public state-run park, so I think I may make a trip up there in a few weeks to see what it’s like. I’ve already seen that the pool has been redone (round corners, hah! and no diving board. plus they removed the gate. the gate has history. they should not have removed the gate).

  20. Jady*

    Maybe it’s poor wording, but this just simple screams to me ‘how do I discriminate without getting in legal trouble’.

    OP said themselves they weren’t involved in the original hiring process. Maybe these people had no idea this was part of the job? I’m in IT and it happens all the time here. Maybe they were told something completely different about the responsibilities? Maybe their medical problems got worse due to any number of things? Maybe they didn’t even know they had these problems or the severity of these problems.

    You don’t just wake up one day and decide to you are mentally ill, or have a phobia, or have cancer. You encounter situations that make you realize something is wrong, and go from there. Nothing is stopping anyone you might hiring from learning they have a phobia of owls on the job.

    Stop thinking about any of that and just focus on a standard hiring process – trying to find good fits for the job. Communicate clearly what the job involves and requires, ask good questions about their experience and how they would handle situations and cultural fits so on etc, and stop making it about mental health.

  21. Alton*

    I’m wondering if there’s another issue here that isn’t being addressed.

    First of all, it’s going to be impossible to screen for mental health issues. Some people are in denial or are very good at hiding destructive behaviors up to a point. Some people might honestly not know ahead of time that something might trigger them. And of course, a lot of people with mental illness manage their conditions and function very well.

    But let’s say someone knows that they’re triggered by the dark or that eating in a cafeteria will be very hard for them. Why are they taking this job? Is it not clear enough what the job will be like? Is there very little training or orientation before being thrown in with the campers? Are they very young, and maybe not used to anticipating issues like these or advocating for themselves? Are they young and taking the job because they’re being pushed into it by their parents? I wonder if there’s an issue like this that’s causing some of the employees to be ill-prepared. Is there a way to better gauge the abilities of all the employees before camp starts?

    But again, you can’t guarantee that an unexpected issue will never come up.

    1. Cat Steals Keyboard*

      Yes, maybe the job description and competencies could be better explained in the first place.

  22. Shandra*

    I’ve been thinking about this since I read it earlier today. I totally understand why this letter writer asked (I realize it’s from the archives) — she’s been burned and she’s trying to avoid future issues. But treating these two staff members who had very different issues as if they fall under one category, “mental health problems,” and then assuming that anyone who has those problems may present a problem, is definitely moving into the territory of discrimination.

    The point above about many other staff having mental health issues that you were not aware of because they were managed is a really, really good one and a timeless piece of information to remember.

    I’ve worked at a camp and hired staff at a camp and I agree that being triggered by the dark is a serious issue. But that’s all it is — a serious issue that one staff member had. Not all people with PTSD are triggered by the dark, or even triggered by common elements at camp. (Ask me how I know!)

    I think STAR interviewing can help, but also agree with comments that part of this is an issue about how the job is portrayed. It might be a good idea to put together one sheet on what a typical camp counsellor’s day or week looks like and send that to potential candidates before an interview.

    Running a camp often means that your staff is young and many of them will be a) former campers b) in their first jobs c) having chosen a summer away from home, which sometimes means there’s something they don’t want to be home for. Information & training is super essential in this case — being way more explicit than you might have to be in different hiring situations. But so is being willing to deal with issues as they come up. A really typical issue we had was going through staff member’s first breakups, where they would be crying in front of their campers, wanting to rush home to talk to their partners, etc. Some churn like that is just part of running a camp.

  23. Stellaaaaa*

    Something I haven’t seen addressed is that these staffers will be in charge of children. Many people are of the belief that accommodating adults is not as important as making sure that the kids are well cared-for; that the safety of children who are not under close supervision by parent-aged adults is not the appropriate venue for the trial and error that comes into play when you’re being open-minded. It becomes especially difficult if the parents caught wind of past issues caused by counselors who weren’t handling their illnesses well.

    I couldn’t begin to propose a solution but I think it’s worth noting that we’re talking about people who are going to be in charge of groups of children, which probably does mean that a lot of ideal accommodations aren’t feasible.

    1. Argh!*

      Exactly! The posters who are worried about discrimination are missing the point. Yes, sometimes a mental illness’s behaviors will disqualify a person from a job. There are many jobs in which a ‘reasonable accommodation’ is too high a bar for some people.

      If someone is afraid of the dark and being in the dark is an essential job function, and that person is expected to act in loco parentis with children, if they can’t actually do that work, they can’t do that work! There are other jobs. They should move on and find a better fit. If they don’t realize they have PTSD until a situation triggers them, then that’s a bit different, but they should be removed from the situation if they can’t properly care for the childrens’ needs.

      If the camp has a rotation that would mean only one week in ten for each counselor would be camping, it’s reasonable to ask a different counselor to take over for that person’s week.

      Cutting and anorexia are just not acceptable around children. Period. Children are the customers and the product the camp provides is a positive experience for the child. Seeing fresh wounds on an authority figure or watching someone eat like a bird — those are NOT positive experiences. It’s not the child’s job to help the cutter feel accepted. The cutter can find another job (or better yet, use the summer to find help and get well)

      I have relatives with severe mental illnesses, some who have been so incapacitated that they can’t work at all. We have a safety net for a reason. Sometimes a mental illness really does disqualify a person from work, either all work or some jobs.

  24. Michael Scott*

    It’s clear that mental health issues are a flashpoint for this online community. This conversation brings tomorrow find a recurrent topic on the open thread sometime back about a commentator With a mental health diagnosis who is seeking to bring her therapy dog along with her to a summer camp. As I recall, The arrangement fell apart pretty quickly and I must say I wasn’t surprised based on the information presented. Caring for a dog at an overnight camp where the primary focus is caring for children and being available to them pretty much 24/7 … It’s complicated & not patently reasonable, from a logistical standpoint. Plus from the sounds of it, the worker in question did have other interpersonal challenges relating to her prospective supervisors that would definitely give me pause coming from a manager’s perspective. I do think mental stability is especially key enroll in roles dealing with children or an all-encompassing environment like camp where one can’t just go home at night from potential stressors. Mental stability in this sense is not the lack of mental illness per se, but in the degree to which mental illness is controlled to the degree it does not detract from one’s ability to fulfill essential job requirements, such as handling stress in a healthy and undetrimental manner. Apart from the advice given by Alison, I think reference checks would be where I’d go for data: “How does this candidate handle stress?” “How has s/he responded to conflict?” “This role requires X. What concerns or cautions do you have about the candidate’s ability to excel in this capacity?” “How would you describe the candidate’s temperament? Attendance? Punctuality? Ability to get along with others? Serve as a healthy role model for children?” I think you could avoid many loose cannons or emotionally immature or problematic counselors in this manner.

  25. Hmmm*

    A major medical institution in Cleveland asks what mental health issues you have in their online application.

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